A Babe in the Woods: Polly Wilbore, 1796–1979

William F. Hanna

In January 1976, the Massachusetts Legislature appropriated $10 million for the construction of a Route 495 extension that would carry the highway from Mansfield through parts of Norton, Raynham, Taunton, Middleborough and Rochester before ending at Route 25 in Wareham. Once the go-ahead was given topographical and engineering studies began immediately and work was underway as soon as the weather permitted.

Because some areas along the proposed route were heavily forested, surveying teams under the supervision of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (later absorbed into MassDOT) went into the woods to mark the boundaries of the new road. While investigating an area in North Taunton, near Prospect Hill Street and close to the Raynham line, they were directed by neighbors to a gravestone standing alone in the forest.

Although there had already been a number of interesting historical artifacts discovered within the proposed Rte. 495 corridor, this one presented an unusually challenging example. It was the gravestone of a child, Polly Wilbore, born in July 1796 and dead just one month and fourteen days later. Suspicion that the headstone might have been stolen from another cemetery and planted in the woods in order to delay the project was quickly dispelled when longtime area residents confirmed that they had known of it for decades. Further investigation also uncovered a footstone, a common feature of colonial-era graves.

Polly Wilbore’s grave in the Plain Cemetery, on Broadway, in Taunton. The horizontal stone embedded in the foreground may by Polly’s footstone.

State law was clear about what had to happen next. An archaeological team from Brown University was called in to evaluate the site. Having already reported on several other historic locations, mostly pre-contact Native American camps, the investigators were well acquainted with the Rte. 495 corridor. As the archaeologists worked in the forest, other researchers pored over records held at the Bristol County Probate Court, while still others studied genealogical information on the Wilbore family found in the collection of the Old Colony History Museum. The two investigations, one on the ground and the other in libraries, took almost three years to complete.

Polly was a seventh generation descendant of Samuel Wilbore, one of Taunton’s earliest settlers. She was the daughter of Joseph and Hannah Wilbore, the fourth of six children born to the couple, and the only one to die in childhood. She lived on land that had belonged to her family for more than a century, and her brief life was spent on the hardscrabble farm from which her parents tried to wrest a living.

As the history of the Wilbore family revealed itself to researchers, the archaeologists worked around the whims of the New England weather. Over many months they found that the Wilbore site had been occupied during two distinct periods. The first was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the Wilbores lived on their small subsistence farm, and the second covered only a few years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when later owners attempted a small-scale industrial enterprise.

From the earlier period, the team found evidence of a four-room cottage with a cellar used for storage. Adjacent to the house they uncovered a well and two outbuildings, one of which was probably a small barn. Near the cottage and in the midst of their small homestead, the Wilbores buried Polly.

Death in colonial times was so commonplace, especially among children, that in their final report on the Wilbore site, the archaeological team noted that Polly’s grave was unusually elaborate for someone so young. Although damaged over two centuries by tree fall, the rising sun motif on her headstone — signifying hope for a new, everlasting life — was quite visible. So were the words of her epitaph:

In memory of
Polly daughter of
Mr. Joseph Wilbore Jr. and
Mrs. Hannah his wife who
died Sep. ye 4 1796
Aged 5 weeks and 3 days
This lovely child is now no more
In glory may it rest
Before the thrown may it adore
and be with Jesus blest

As time passes, Polly’s epitaph becomes more and more difficult to decipher.

Some time in the first decade of the nineteenth century Joseph Wilbore sold his farm and moved his family to South Newbury, Ohio. Of Polly’s five siblings, four lived into their eighties, but it’s doubtful that any of them ever returned to visit the grave in the North Taunton woods.

On February 28, 1979, a mild winter day, workers from a local funeral home, accompanied by a representative from the coroner’s office, removed Polly’s grave from the forest — no longer a forest by then, having been cut and cleared by heavy construction equipment. They took her remains to the Plain Cemetery in Taunton, where they were reinterred and the gravestone again placed at her head. The footstone, a victim of time and indifference, is no longer evident. What’s left of the Wilbore farm, whatever bits and pieces the archaeologists may have missed, today lies under the median strip of Route 495.

Plain Cemetery, Taunton, MA